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Air Force medics hone skills in Panama

CHITRE, Panama -- A two-week U.S. Southern Command-sponsored exercise began here Saturday with the arrival of medics from seven military installations.

The Medical Readiness Training Exercise to Panama is one of approximately 70 MEDRETEs sponsored each year by U.S. Southern Command. The MEDRETE is scheduled to treat patients at three rural locations through partnership with Panamanian doctors.

The exercise is designed to hone the skills of medical personnel while providing free health care in remote locations. Medical specialties of the Air Force medics involved in the MEDERETE include dentistry, optometry, general medicine, pediatrics and dermatology.

Panama has a national health care system, but in many remote locations it is too expensive for patients to travel to a doctor on a regular basis. As such, one of the benefits of the mission is to bring medical care to a location accessible by the patients and enable those requiring routine care to simultaneously be entered into the government health care system. Other benefits include training for the Airmen involved in the mission, and increased capability for the Panamanian medical community.

"As long as they do not lose the eyeglasses they will last them for a number of years," said Maj. Darrell S. Grise, an Optometrist here from the 96th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. "We get a lot of bang for the buck. At a relatively low cost for a pair of glasses, the patients see a drastic difference in their lives."

Some of the doctors have been on numerous humanitarian aid missions before, such as Major Grise, who has been on four previous trips. For others, like Capt. Bryan A. Farford, a family physician here from the 81st Medical Operations Squadron at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., this is their first experience.

"I had been wanting to do this for a while, but I did not know how to get selected," Capt. Farford said. "But one day I got a call and it just fell into my lap. It is rewarding to me to be able to take part in such a wonderful experience. I feel that this is a great opportunity to provide medical care for people that do not have true access to care."

Medical team members said they hope to see thousands of patients over the course of the MEDRETE.

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